I don't usually read Christian Romance because I find it to be a little "Disney Romance" (The thirty-something characters in this novel hardly kiss, m...moreI don't usually read Christian Romance because I find it to be a little "Disney Romance" (The thirty-something characters in this novel hardly kiss, mostly hold hands and think about how wonderful hugging would be, and never miss church on Sunday....awwwww!) Nevertheless, this was an interesting story that reveals the amount of work the author did to try to get the military part as correct as she could (and she lets the reader know in the preface that she has taken liberties with things like deployments, etc.) In the interests of full disclosure I received a copy of this book as a free download from the Kindle store, so the price was right!
If I have one problem with the story it is that our hero, Joe, spends copious amounts of time declaring that he doesn't want to have children while he's a SEAL because he won't be an absentee father. Never mind that the heroine Kelly is 31, can't wait forever to have the family she desperately wants, and asking her to wait until he's decided he's done with what he wants to do in the military is just plain selfish. Never mind that he has a beloved dog he doesn't mind spending 180 days of each year away from or that the heroine is fully capable of ensuring that he is presence in the lives of his hypothetical children even if he isn't physically in the home (military spouses do this routinely and with vast amounts of love). I understand his reasoning, I'm just not sure I could live with it if I were the woman in question, especially because it shows a lack of faith and trust, and the question of trusting in God is the foundation for this romance, RIGHT? I guess that it just doesn't ring true for me that two people who really want to have a family would wait to start one possibly too late to do anything but adopt, and all this over his career. I've seen too many career women go through terrific trials attempting to have the families they delayed because of their careers, and the regret these decisions cause them.
I also find it slightly humorous that the villain has a come-to-Jesus moment and that he is also a regular church-goer who uses his spare time to plot nefarious schemes in which good men could very easily perish. While I feel his redemption is true, his earthly sins are great, and it seems the reader is being encouraged to be far more forgiving than he deserves, especially since he is responsible for the death of Kelly's husband three years prior. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it that he is the thief with the heart of gold who started selling weapons to the highest bidder because he was mad at God over his wife's death from cancer, but this doesn't get much sympathy from me when his actions cause the deaths of honorable men who have every reason to be mad at God but are finding better ways to deal with their pain.
Overall, I found the story to be enjoyable despite the bipolar nature of the romance itself. I liked the dynamic between the SEALS, the nature of the work both Joe and Kelly perform, and the sense of community within the narrative. The prayerful tone of many of the scenes in the text isn't my cup of tea, but Christian readers may very well enjoy the prayers Kelly and Joe create and use these to reflect on their lives. (less)
I feel a little guilty about giving this book four out of five stars because I absolutely adore this series. Alexia's adventures have been fun from th...moreI feel a little guilty about giving this book four out of five stars because I absolutely adore this series. Alexia's adventures have been fun from the first page, and I was looking forward to a grand finale that answered some important questions. It was disappointing to see how many important details were simply glossed over or ignored, and it makes me wonder if these details are being held in reserve for the two new series Carriger is writing based on the Parasol Protectorate?
For example, there are allusions in all five books to how Alessandro Tarabotti, Alexia's father, met and married her mother while in Egypt. Much of this story takes place in Egypt, making it a perfect time to explain Alexia's origin story and to perhaps make her parents slightly more sympathetic characters, but this exploration never materializes. This becomes especially odd with regards to the mystery of the origins of the God Breaker Curse, and it wouldn't have taken much to expand on this, since it is the mystery that drove much of the series.
Another problem I had with the story is that the narrative seems to move at a broken pace. It took me, the inhaler of books, three days to read this story! At first I thought this was because I was lamenting the end of the series and pacing myself. Then I realized much of the problem comes from the way plot elements are revealed throughout the story: This book doesn't read like the end of the series, it reads like the set-up for a new series. I appreciate that a new series based on Alexia and Connall's daughter, Prudence, is forthcoming, but it is a YA series and, please, for the love of all things literary, please finish this series by focusing on these characters and storylines. The conclusion of the book feels pat and uncomplicated, and has a distracted feel like the author has already mentally moved on to another series.
Despite these problems, I found the book to be very much in keeping with the series. There is a wry humor throughout the series that keeps the romantic elements from descending into saccharine sweetness. The world Carriger has created has a complex social and political structure that can sometimes be a snarl, especially with vampires, werewolves, Knights Templar, Order of the Brass Octopus, and regular human governments, but I appreciated how this made me read carefully. I'd say more on this, but it will lead to spoilers so I'll leave it at that. Read carefully, and then wait for The Finishing School series, as well as the Parasol Protectorate Abroad series, where (hopefully!) a few more details about this world can be revealed. (less)
I find that sometimes the only way I can process an anthology is by reading and evaluating each story individually, and then determining an average sc...moreI find that sometimes the only way I can process an anthology is by reading and evaluating each story individually, and then determining an average score for the work as a whole. In this case, there were seventeen stories, and each could earn a score of up to five points. With 85 points available, my final score for this anthology is 61, or an average of 3.59, which I have rounded up to a four star rating here. This is really a 3.5 star review. Some of my favorite are evaluated below, with the score I gave it accompanied by my rationale, and my complete review can be found on http://atmology.blogspot.com/2011/09/... .
I will admit that my score is biased by my disappointment that this collection doesn’t have a much better developed steampunk sensibility. I understand that steampunk wasn’t the sole focus of the stories that were gathered, but if an editor puts this on the cover then I expect to see these themes and tropes appear. Instead, I feel like the victim of a bait and switch, where I’m told I’m going to get something, and then feel duped. All of these stories could be described as supernatural suspense or horror stories, and it doesn’t make sense to me that the steampunk label was applied for what ends up being less than half of the collection. I feel like this descriptor was added because steampunk is gaining a large following of fans that are hungry for this genre and will eagerly buy this kind of literature, and I feel baffled that a better anthology wasn't assembled by editors who write in this genre and should know better.
In the stories where the steampunk label does apply, it certainly isn’t because of airships, corsets, or cogs! In these narratives the steampunk is focused within themes of technology, and the effect technology has on humanity, as well as how this changes the individual or society. Honestly, I feel the word ‘horror’ belongs on this cover, not ‘steampunk,’ and I wish that is what the editors had done. Despite this, there are some fine stories that can be considered steampunk in this anthology, and it is these stories that saved this anthology for me. Here are my thoughts on my favorites:
Music, When Soft Voices Die (Peter S. Beagle): (This story 26 pages, and takes place in England.) Beagle hasn’t written steampunk before, and this first attempt is actually quite good. The third person omniscient narration revolves around four roommates share a home: Vodran (copyist), Scheuch (bank clerk), Griffith (waiter), and Angelos (second-year medical student). Angelos is denied a true medical education because he is Jewish, but he tinkers and designs gadgets while he attends the university, which keeps him fairly entertained. One day, Angelos is working on a machine he thinks will allow people to communicate wirelessly over large distances, but as time goes by he discovers that all of the voices are that of people in great pain. Their Turkish property manager comes by to collect the rent and immediately knows that Angelos has used technology to achieve something terrible: Will magic be able to cure the problem technology has created?
I thought this was an interesting story because of the multi-cultural and retro-futuristic technology, which incorporates the spiritualism Victorians were engrossed with. Beagle creates a modified history that was interesting, and incorporated the Turkish elements in a clever fashion. The more I think about this story, the more I like it for its fit into the steampunk genre. This story earned 5 stars for overall steampunk and elegance of the narrative, and is one of my favorites in the anthology.
The Curious Curse of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder (Garth Nix): (13 pages, and takes place in England.) There’s a mysterious murder in a park, and the sergeant calls for Sherlock Holmes, but gets Sir Magnus Holmes, Sherlock’s second cousin somewhat removed. It turns out there are supernatural forces involved, and Sherlock thinks his young cousin, who is currently a resident of Bedlam, is the perfect man for the job. Magnus and his “keeper” Miss Susan Shrike are, indeed, the perfect people for the job, but the greater mystery is who (or what) is Magnus?
Although this story lacks overt steampunk elements achieved through machinery, the suspense is well developed and the gaslight drama is very well done. As far as I’m concerned, the means Miss Shrike uses to control Magnus is all the technology this story needs, and it caught my imagination and interest. This story wins my “story I would most like to see as a novel” award for this anthology, and is easily my favorite of the collection. There’s delightful ambiguity and intriguing questions, and I would love to see this story expanded to reveal more about Magnus and Susan’s relationship, and well as how Magnus copes with his supernatural abilities. I gave this story 5 stars for overall interest and the supernatural elements used.
Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism (Richard Harland): (19 pages, takes place in England/English analog.) A 13 year-old is suffering from crippling nightmares and his parents take him to a research center that promises to cure him. When they arrive they discover that the scientist has a machine that he is using to “pull” the bad dreams out of his patients. It turns out that the aspects of the personality that are pulled out of the patients become trapped in the machine, and cause the machine to act out the horrible acts in the minds of the patients it has been used to treat. Can the young man make his parents and the mad scientist listen to his claims that the machine is haunted before it overpowers and kills its creator?
This story is clearly a steampunk story, especially because it examines the question of the role of technology in our lives and the degree to which we are being changed by it. I also appreciated that Harland managed to incorporate supernatural suspense into his narrative. This is one of my top three favorite stories in the collection, and I gave it 5 stars for its steampunk elements and well-written narrative.
I bought Clementine because I had just finished reading Boneshaker, which I thought was a clever and original story that reinvented American history a...moreI bought Clementine because I had just finished reading Boneshaker, which I thought was a clever and original story that reinvented American history and offered a plausible alternative timeline in which the American Civil War never ended and drags on through internecine fighting and skirmishes. While I think much of Clementine captures elements of this originality, it was a touch disappointing, primarily because there wasn’t enough narrative to develop either of the main characters or their place in the textured history Priest has created for her Clockwork Century novels. I find that this novel can more appropriately be described as a novella, and it almost felt like a short story whose expansion was forced, with somewhat unsatisfying results. Although Priest’s narrative in this novel is adequate, the characters never become truly interesting and, as a result, I had trouble developing emotional attachment to them, as well as the desire to see them succeed. This book definitely adds to the Clockwork Century series, and is worth owning, but it simply never transcends the problem with the flat character development.
The reader first meets Captain Croggon Beauregard Hainey in Boneshaker: He’s a former slave who ‘liberated’ an airship from Confederate forces eight years before the start of the story and headed West with a crew of former slaves to make their way through piracy and smuggling of the highly addictive Yellow Sap. His airship, which he has rechristened the Free Crow, is stolen during Boneshaker by Felton Brink, who is using it to transport an important component for a superweapon being constructed in the North. Hainey takes this theft very personally—he stole the Free Crow fair and square, after all, and it’s a matter of personal honor. He’s not going to let Brink get away with renaming his ship Clementine and depriving him of his means of making a living.
Then the narrative shifts to Maria Isabella Boyd who, at nearly forty, has had too much success as a Confederate spy. Rather than retire her gracefully, however, the Confederate government sends her the dreaded “your services are no longer needed” letter, and leaves her to make her way as best as she can without a military pension, which is inexplicably withdrawn. Boyd is left with limited options for employment until she is hired by the Chicago-based Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Her boss knows she was a Confederate spy, but since his firm is no longer being given much work by the Union, he feels that the benefit of her particular skillset outweighs the potential for conflict of interest. For her first mission she is tasked with making sure that the airship Clementine makes it to Louisville, Kentucky. She isn’t told what’s on the ship, only that the ship has to make it to its destination by any means necessary, and if she can also capture Hainey, then she can turn him over to the Confederate authorities for extra consideration. Pinkerton isn’t necessarily aligned politically and, so long as she does the job she’s paid to do, he doesn’t really care what her political views are.
The story then alternates between Hainey and Boyd: Hainey, as he comes East from Seattle, and Boyd as she rushes West from Chicago. The two meet in the middle of a firefight in Kansas City and quickly discover they have common goals. Hainey doesn’t know where Brink is taking the Clementine, but he knows that its cargo will be used in the manufactory of a superweapon the Union plans to use to win the war. Boyd knows where the ship is heading, but was unaware of the weapon that will be used to destroy major Confederate cities in an effort to force the surrender of the South. The two decide to join forces to retrieve Hainey’s ship and prevent the Union from being successful.
As other reviewers have already pointed out, the story feels hurried and poorly developed, with a plot that feels thin and barely plausible. Cities are alluded to, but there is barely any mention of how the protracted civil war has restricted the westward expansion of the United States or how population growth has been changed. I assume that the American population would continue to grow, even given the ongoing civil war, and I can’t figure out where the populations are or why they would go in those directions. This created a disconnect with the characters: As a reader, I don’t understand why Boyd continues to be loyal to the South and its political goals, or who is buying the merchandise that Hainey is stealing and/or transporting. The story is action-filled and fast-paced, but it seems to be serving goals I can’t understand or support as a reader. In short, the story gives me few reasons to sympathize with or like these characters, and I just don’t care if they are successful.
Despite my complaints about the narrative, I enjoy Priest’s writing style, and I was entertained by the story. It’s all action-adventure, with nontraditional leading characters in an older heroine and black leading man. I appreciate that Priest resisted the urge to further muddle her novel with a romance, and the relationship between Hainey and Boyd remains properly focused on getting to Louisville so that they can go their separate ways. This is not to say that they don’t earn each other’s respect, because they do, but this story isn’t long enough for anything more sophisticated, like friendship, to develop. Because this story adds so little to the alternate history Priest has created, I would recommend that readers who are new to the Clockwork Century should focus on reading Boneshaker and Dreadnought first, and save this book for supplemental reading. (less)
Not very long ago I wrote a rave review for the first book in Clay and Susan Griffith’s Vampire Empire, a story that I find reimagines vampire mytholo...moreNot very long ago I wrote a rave review for the first book in Clay and Susan Griffith’s Vampire Empire, a story that I find reimagines vampire mythology and adds elements of Steampunk and horror to create a novel that feels new and interesting, and that I found exciting to read. The early reviews for The Rift Walker indicated that this novel was a solid addition to the series, but I was worried that it would suffer the fate of so many other ‘middle’ novels, in which the characters in a trilogy spend a great deal of time running to and fro figuring out the bits of information they need for the closing book. I was incredibly pleased to discover this was far from the case with The Rift Walker: Like its predecessor, this narrative is wildly entertaining and the wandering the characters do is necessary to the plot and character development that is driving this trilogy. As with the previous book in this series, while it is clearly written for the adult market, YA audiences will enjoy this story as well.
The story opens with the Greyfriar, vampire Prince Gareth, back home in Scotland and Equatorian Princess Adele reluctantly preparing to marry the American senator chosen to be her consort. Adele is anything but willing, however: she’s using her ‘fragility’ over the events of the first book as an excuse to keep delaying the wedding for months while she spends her nights attending popular plays staged about her tragic romance with the Greyfriar. Both main characters struggle with their fathers and how these men control their lives. Gareth suffers at seeing his fragile father, King Dimitri, fade away, and his brother Cesare’s increasing control and assumption he will rule in Gareth’s place. Adele, by contrast, feels isolated from her father, and alienated from whatever glimmers of love she ever had from him. Gareth and Adele’s destinies seem beyond their control, and both suffer from the implications of what the future will bring for them, as well as for their subjects.
But then Gareth learns of a terrible vampire plot to launch a sneak attack on Equatoria, an attack that is designed to kill the ruling family and leave the humans at the mercy of the vampires. Similarly, the Equatorians have decided on a strategy to cripple the vampires: They will kill all the humans in northern Europe to deprive the vampires of a food source and cripple the vampires. This plan leaves Adele deeply horrified—these humans are technically her subjects, and they are about to he cruelly butchered as a ‘necessary sacrifice’—but she doesn’t know how to stop the wheels of fate. Adele’s father decides she no longer has any excuse to delay in marrying Senator Clark, and the wedding must take place so that Senator Clark can put this plan in motion. All are unaware that Gareth has planned a daring rescue of the princess, and he arrives just as Adele and the senator are pronounced man and wife. He romantically whisks her away, but it immediately becomes evident he didn’t have much of a plan beyond the snatch and grab. It is left to Adele to figure out who their allies might be, and to develop a plan to get Equatoria some help from the coming vampire attack.
In The Greyfriar Gareth had the advantage of territory, but now the situation has completely reversed. He and Adele are heading into the heart of the African continent, where Gareth is practically incapacitated by the heat, and completely at Adele’s mercy. Adele has to keep Gareth’s secret while proving herself worthy of the future leadership of a country whose political system is unraveling. Meanwhile, the threatened vampire attack takes place, and Senator Clark uses it to attempt to have himself declared emperor by virtue of marriage to Adele. He sets off in pursuit of his “wife” so that he can take the throne he’s decided should be his because he’s male, and better suited to leading Equatoria.
But the race to a distant ally is more than a strategic retreat for Gareth and Adele: She is learning what she is and the range of her talents, as well as how to access this power. She is also learning more about who Gareth is as a vampire, and exploring the question of the ability of humans and vampires to coexist. He, on the other hand, is learning that humans are even more complex and unpredictable than he imagined, and he becomes increasingly driven to make sure that humanity survives the coming war, even though it might mean the destruction of his species.
It’s really hard for me to keep from talking about how much I like this story—both on its own and as the second book in a series. It’s longer than the first installment, and has a moral ambiguity and literary complexity that has me still thinking about how the plots are going to unravel and anxious for the next book. Despite all of the action, there are some fairly large questions embedded in the text that have me wondering how the authors are going to resolve these conflicts with only one book left! The biggest question I think the text is exploring is whether it is possible for these two equally strong species to overcome their natural distrust and mutual animosity to arrive at a peaceful coexistence. Is the destruction of one group necessary for there to be resolution? Adele certainly appears capable of destroying the vampires, a power that was hinted at in The Greyfriar, and explored at greater length in The Rift Walker. But the vampires are incredibly fast and powerful against a woman who can only be one place at a time.
Similarly, both Gareth and Adele are the heirs apparent of their respective empires. A cataclysmic war is on the horizon, and it seems that no matter how much they love each other, Gareth and Adele are going to have to make some hard choices about their future. If they are able to arrive at a peaceful solution, what will this mean for their relationship? If there is no peaceful resolution, will Adele have to order or carry out the killing of all vampires, including Gareth?
I also liked the way Steampunk was incorporated into this story, although little is added that wasn’t already present in the first book. The soldiers on the airships and in ground battles wear goggles because they are equipped with special lenses that allow them to tell the difference between humans and vampires, who look so much alike that in the heat of battle this capability is necessary. The Equatorians use steam-powered technology for their airships because their displacement from Europe has made survival essential and slowed the development of other kinds of technology. The vampires wear Victorian clothing because they are restricted to using what was left behind by human populations after The Great Killing; they are unable to master using tools to make more. The Steampunk elements are incorporated thoughtfully and with purpose, and nothing is present that doesn’t serve a necessary use. This is Steampunk that makes sense and puts the story first. I am looking forward to learning more about the technology the Equatorians and Americans have developed in future installments of this trilogy.
My final analysis is that this story is just plain fun. It was difficult to put down because there’s always a new twist that creates interest and incentive to keep reading. I LIKE Adele and Gareth, and their story is heartbreakingly compelling, especially given their status as future rulers of their nations. I appreciated that this isn’t a story of a ‘good’ species versus an ‘evil’ species, but a fight for survival in which both groups can behave equally badly. Although things still look bad for both groups, there is a small glimmer of hope that change is possible. I can’t wait for the next book in this trilogy!! (less)
I owned this book for some time before I picked it up and began reading. Why? Because this novel has a major conceit that I found challenging to accep...moreI owned this book for some time before I picked it up and began reading. Why? Because this novel has a major conceit that I found challenging to accept: What if the fictional twentieth-century superheroes we’re all familiar with have nineteenth century antecedents? How would they behave and dress, and what dilemmas would they face? To further complicate matters, this book is informed by Steampunk tropes and themes, and I couldn’t help but be worried that this interesting concept would devolve into a campy pastiche. But books are best when read and, likewise, opinions when they are informed.
At the open of the book the reader is introduced to Sir Dennis Darby, inventor extraordinaire and the aging leader of The Society of Paragons, a group of men who have been enhanced by technology and training to protect the city of New York from similarly enhanced villains. Darby is known as the Professor, and is the creator of Automaton, Tom for short. The mechanical man is an A.I., and has been given full membership in the Paragons, with the result that his fellow Paragons are resentful that the machine is being given rank and prestige any machine is not entitled to. But then Darby is ambushed while on an outing and subsequently murdered, and the clues suggest the murder was facilitated by a fellow Paragon. None of the Paragons seem interested in solving this mystery, and it is left to Darby’s greatest creation, the Automaton, and Sarah Stanton to unravel the clues.
Sarah is the daughter of Alexander Stanton, co-founder of the Paragons, and although her gender prevents her from becoming a Paragon she has pursued an education through her close friendship with The Professor. His murder, and the subsequent mistreatment of Tom, sends her on an investigation that reveals the presence of an allied group of villains known as The Children of Eschaton. She partners with Tom and Darby’s partner and fellow Paragon, The Sleuth, to solve the mystery. In the process she learns that the aging Paragons aren’t as heroic as they seem, and that the battle of good versus evil is far more complicated than she ever thought.
But even as the Children of Eschaton must be dealt with, the Paragons are unraveling under the strain of betrayal. Could the traitor be wealthy Alexander Stanton, known as The Industrialist, a man who was widowed seven years prior when his wife and daughter were abducted, an event that was prompted by his membership in the Paragons and led to his wife’s murder? Or is it The Submersible, Helmut Grüsser, a disgraced Prussian officer known for questionable behavior towards women? Bill Hughes, known as Iron-Clad, was a hulk of a man once upon a time, but a debilitating disease has put him in a chair; could his anger towards his reduced circumstances have prompted him to turn his back on the Paragons? Nathaniel Winthorp is The Turbine and the youngest member of the group by far: Was he corrupted by Eschaton? There are more questions than answers, and the situation is only getting grimmer as Eschaton’s followers begin a coordinated assault on the city and its heroes.
I will concede this novel feels like a comic book that was then converted into a full-length story, complete with outrageously costumed heroes and villains, fantastic weapons and technology, and a fully implausible, artificially intelligent, android. This feeling of dissociation is strengthened by the historically accurate depiction of the city and the division among gender, race, and socioeconomic status of its citizens. I was prepared to write a disappointed review in which I said it had all become a confused mess and how I wished it had all been done better.
Instead, I found the story engrossing, and every character has something more going on in their background. This narrative questions the nature of good versus evil, and how costumed heroes and villains are representative of a megalomania that is more self-serving than political. The Paragons are, with the exception of The Turbine and Tom, older gentlemen who have begun to think themselves invulnerable to a degree, and they aren’t able to see how their arrogance harms the people they’ve sworn to protect. The Children of Eschaton are clearly villains, but their villainy is shaded by the living conditions within the city of two million, and the public opinion that the Paragons aren’t working in the best interests of those who live in the poorest areas, but for those of the white upper and middle classes only. In the middle of all of this is Sarah, The Adventuress, who has grown into young adulthood with the ideal of the hero, only to discover he has clay feet and heroism requires selfless sacrifice unlike any she has seen. The story could have devolved into caricature, but it rises above this to give the reader a compelling narrative. Yes, it means accepting the fantastic and anachronistic elements as they are written, but this is a major conceit of Steampunk, and the reward is an entertaining story that is worth your time.
I’m giving the book a four out of five because there are some small inconsistencies that never seem to be dealt with. For example, Nathaniel Winthorp is Alexander Stanton’s stepson. At one point in the story he reminds Sarah he has known her for twelve years, since she was seven. Sarah’s mother was killed seven years prior, which means that Nathaniel could only have become her stepbrother in that last seven years, but this spouse is never mentioned, not even by Nathaniel, who never references either of his parents. Further, Alexander commemorates his wedding anniversary with his first wife, and the (presumed) second marriage seems non-existent. To further confuse matters, Nathaniel is romantically interested in Sarah despite their step-sibling status. It’s a bit of a confused mystery, and a plot twist that seems unnecessary.
But plot twists aren’t necessarily a bad thing, and my favorite plot twist is that of Anubis, one of the Children of Eschaton—or is he? Only one chapter in the book revolves around this character, and he is so engrossing I found myself rereading that chapter several times to glean every detail I could about him. I initially thought that, since this book is the first in a series, Anubis may be a potential romantic interest for Sarah in future installments. But further rereading has prompted me to rethink this and now I have a whole new theory and this, coupled with a doozy of a cliffhanger at the end of the novel, has me intensely impatient for the next book, which will be published in the Fall of 2011. I love it when books defy my expectations and reinvent them! (less)
I’ve had a hard time writing this review because I’m a fan of the Girl Genius webcomic, and it feels like I’m speaking ill of the series to offer up c...moreI’ve had a hard time writing this review because I’m a fan of the Girl Genius webcomic, and it feels like I’m speaking ill of the series to offer up criticism on the novel. It has taken me a while to decide that not all great comic heroes have made a graceful transition into novelized forms, and this book falls into that category. Don’t get me wrong: The book is a fun, pleasant read, but it is so because the original story has those qualities. This book offers very little that is new to the Girl Genius world, and if you’re looking for a summary of volumes 1-3 of the comic reprints, or you don’t want to read the comic but be brought up to speed, then this book is for you. I enjoyed reading it, and wouldn’t have any problems recommending it to others, but this book is simply a capable retelling of what has already transpired. If you really want to read this story, buy the webcomic reprint. If you want the CliffsNotes or absolutely must own everything Girl Genius you can get your hands on, then buy this book.
The story begins with Bill and Barry Heterodyne, who are attempting to identify a way to destroy a powerful threat. The source if this threat is mysterious, but whoever it is has abducted Bill’s wife and son and Bill, a powerful ‘spark’ and scion of the Heterodyne family, is trying to get to the bottom of things. Bill’s brother Barry has also inherited the spark genetic trait, and the brothers are powerful inventors and scientists that have fought to bring order to their part of the world. Now Bill is obsessed by a desire to avenge the loss of his family and bring relief from the perpetual destruction caused by renegade sparks in the region.
The story then picks up over a decade later. The Heterodyne boys have both disappeared and their good friend and partner, Baron Wulfenbach, now rules over the region with an iron fist. The story begins with Agatha Clay, who is being raised by her foster parents Adam and Lilith. All her life Agatha has had visions of invention and creation that ended with debilitating and excruciating headaches. Despite this, she has enrolled at Transylvania Polygnostic University under the watchful eye of Dr. Beetle, who keeps her on despite her repeated catastrophic failures to create anything that actually works. Then one day, while on her way to school, Agatha is mugged and the locket that Lilith insists Agatha wear every day is stolen and Adam and Lilith move to relocate. While the pair is gone making arrangements, a tired Agatha lies down for a moment to rest and, when she wakes up, she discovers that she may have built a machine in her sleep, and this has caught the eye of Baron Wulfenbach, who consolidates his power by isolating new sparks whenever one is found. But the Baron makes a tactical error: He thinks the spark is the man who stole Agatha’s locket, and that Agatha is merely a girlfriend. The Baron takes the pair up to his floating capitol, the airship Castle Wulfenbach.
On the airship Agatha feels finally free of her headaches and, even though she doesn’t understand why yet, she has too much to deal with to give it any thought. The Baron’s son, Gil, is also on the ship, and he knows that there is more to Agatha then his father is able to see. He is the one who identifies her as a spark, and keeps that information from his father so he can recruit her to help with his projects. Agatha also learns that the Baron often forces the families of his vassals to send their children to live on the airship for the majority of the year as insurance for good behavior. Agatha begins making friends with these fellow hostages while she tries to figure out who she is and why she keeps waking up in the morning in only her underwear and machine grease all over her hands. Eventually, Agatha learns that not only is she is a spark, but the daughter of Bill Heterodyne and, since her father and uncle are missing and presumed dead, she is the last scion of her family and a target for all the ruling sparks, who will want to control her. She can either submit to the Baron, or she can escape in the hopes of restoring her family and solving the mystery of what happened to her parents.
One of the reasons I was somewhat disappointed with this book is because it offers so little additional information about Agatha or the world she lives in. Agatha suffers terribly from incapacitating headaches for most of her young life, and her attempts to create, which fulfill a deep-seated need, are constantly frustrated. This condition is definitely presented as a problem in the book, but her headaches seem to be more of an inconvenience than a major roadblock to development. I ‘get’ that Agatha’s self-esteem and inability to self-actualize has been seriously compromised throughout her life, but this reality is presented in a way that feels cardboard and two-dimensional. This is acceptable in a comic because of the limitations of the format, but I expected more internal dialogue and complexity from Agatha.
This criticism applies to Gilgamesh Wulfenbach, Agatha’s potential love interest. As the son of Baron Wulfenbach, who took over the area Agatha lives in when she was a child, Gil honestly believes himself to be different from his father. Gil is constantly tested by the Baron, which he resents, but at the same time he has picked up many of his father’s opinions and attitudes. This is an area where a novelized version of this story could really shine to create an ambiguous and complex character, but Gil never quite develops. As a result, Gil is a caricature that falls flat. It feels like a missed opportunity for additional content that might not fit into the comic format, and deprives both Gil and his father Baron Wulfenbach of the ambiguity that would help this story transcend from just a copy of another format into a version in its own right. I feel even more strongly about this after having asked Kaja Foglio at a recent convention if she and co-author Phil had gained any new perspective about Agatha through the writing process. Kaja responded that no, they pretty much understand who Agatha is as a character and there were no additional refinements in the writing process. This begs the question of why bother with writing the novelized version of the story then? If story is complete in its graphic form, it seems to be needlessly redundant to create a novelized version that is simply a retread of what these authors have already done in a previous text.
I will repeat my initial statement that this was a fun read, and I enjoyed it, but the novel never moves beyond just ‘ok’ to something more interesting and thought provoking. It also doesn’t help that the story suffers because the artwork, which is a powerful component, is missing altogether. The comic succeeds because of the engaging art and, without it, much of the charm and heart of the story simply never appear on the page. I sincerely hope that Kaja and Phil have been paying attention to what their readers are saying about this book, and are taking this feedback to heart. I know that I will buy the next book in the series when it comes out, but it would be nice to read a story that is more engaging. (less)
Before beginning my preview I would like to make it clear that I wouldn’t describe this story as YA; there’s no judgment implied in this statement, si...moreBefore beginning my preview I would like to make it clear that I wouldn’t describe this story as YA; there’s no judgment implied in this statement, simply a caution since so many Steampunk novels can easily fall into multiple categories. There are references to sexual behavior in this novel and, although they never become graphic and are mostly suggested, there is the description of an orgy as well as the violent prelude to a near rape. There is also somewhat graphic violence; there are plenty of fist, knife, and gun fights, as well as explosions, to advise parent guidance. As in, parents should only hand this book to their teenager if they’ve read it first and are comfortable with their child’s maturity level.
**Warning! Some of analysis contains spoilers! I tried to be as vague as possible—and there’s a lot going on in the book I never mention—but I’m trying to give fair warning here!**
The story begins with a rescue mission: Wellington Thornhill Books, chief archivist for England’s super-secret Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences (MOPO) has been kidnapped and secreted away in Antarctica by the malevolent villains known as The House of Usher. As the archivist for the ministry, Books knows all the secrets, codes, and anything else that is of importance to the running of a clandestine government organization. The head of the ministry, Dr. Sound, immediately dispatches one of his best agents, Eliza D. Braun, to rescue the archivist, dead or alive, with ‘dead’ being the preferred option. But Braun is a woman of action who likes to do things her way, and she doesn’t do things quietly or exactly as ordered: she manages to rescue Books in rather spectacular fashion while failing to conceal who was involved. She returns to England knowing that there will be a reckoning.
Once back in England, Dr. Sound decides that Braun’s ultimate punishment is to have to work with Books in the archives. The agents are horrified: Books lives an ordered and quiet existence in the bowels of the ministry, and Braun lost her previous partner under painful circumstances and would rather continue her woman of action lifestyle alone. But just like the mysterious and powerful items that are kept in the archives, Dr. Sound’s plans for Books and Braun are not what they seem, and his motives for pairing these two very different personalities seem to be a part of a larger scheme than either can realize. Braun makes her unhappiness with her new assignment felt as thoroughly as she can: She breaks things, refuses to keep to schedule, and behaves in the most obnoxious manner she can. Then one day she finds the records for her partner’s last case, and she can’t help but read the details, many of which she has never seen or heard. Agent Harrison Thorne had been investigating a set of particularly vicious murders when he was found, alone and mad, in the slums of London. Although he is still alive, Eliza’s former partner now resides in Bedlam, a babbling shell of a man beyond all medical treatment. Eliza resolves to untangle the mystery without the ministry’s knowledge but in order to do so she must involve her new, unwanted partner. But Books believes in rules and structure, and he doesn’t want anything to do with this off the books investigation. That is, until his natural curiosity becomes engaged and he is slowly dragged into a mystery involving assassins, secret societies, and dangerous subterfuge.
I appreciated how stereotypical roles (the man as headstrong, the woman as the more demure voice of reason) are inverted in this story, but this contrast is sometimes to the point of extremes and it takes a little bit for the character development to progress far enough to explain why these characters behave this way. Braun initially seems to be too vampy and flirty, while Books is too uptight and by the book. As the story progresses, however, the reader discovers that Braun’s outrageous behavior is a weapon as much as her guns or knives; she uses it both to protect her emotional vulnerability as much as to incite her enemies into rash behavior. This is a woman who desperately misses her family in New Zealand, in particular a brother with a debilitating mental illness, as well as her Maori mentors, who taught her the skills she would need to survive. Although the book doesn’t fully explain her exile to England, there is additional material available on the author website that sheds some light on how her assignment with MOPO is far more complicated than it seems.
Books, on the other hand, initially seems to be a coward, completely unable to defend himself, and afraid of weapons. The reader learns that just because Books doesn’t want handle knives, guns, or explosives doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t. Although he’s more than content to let Braun do the work and think poorly of him, he can, and does, handle situations when they arise. His extreme reluctance to handle weapons has a cause, and the reader is provided with enough details to understand there is something more going on. Interestingly, I found I wasn’t frustrated by the lack of a full explanation; Books’ anxiety and struggles, as well as those of Braun, seem real and, just as with a real person, we’re not going to learn them all at one time. This added a layer of psychological complexity made this book feel like a part of a larger story, and I’m glad the authors left the reader a little curious about the London they’ve created. These characters are going to develop over time, and I feel like I’ve gotten just enough information to be excited for the next installment of the story.
Previous reviewers have commented that the character development felt shallow, but I don’t agree that this is the case. I really liked that Books and Braun come with backstories, and I don’t mind that first half dozen chapters are devoted to developing the relationship between these two very different personalities. Books’ upbringing as the son of a wealthy and demanding landowner appears throughout his interior dialogue, and explains why he feels so strongly compelled to do the work he does. Braun’s backstory in New Zealand is a bit more mysterious, but the narrative clearly demonstrates how she has been shaped by the tragedies in her life, and how her work for the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences (MOPO) is informed by this past. I had the sense that Books and Braun hadn’t worked through these problems and, after they are thrown together, the initial partnership is destined to be rocky. But I also feel that after they have that rough, awkward, slow start, they learn to trust each other and a real partnership forms, not the manufactured partnership where two people are just thrown together and told to get something done. Although the story hints at the possibility of a future romance (the reader certainly learns that they are attracted to each other) I’m especially grateful that this element, if it does happen, is further down the road. The friendship and trust comes first.
I love the intertextual nods in this book: References to Edgar Allen Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” [The House of Usher is the group of villains who originally kidnap Books], Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Baker Street Irregulars [the “Mission 7” in the book], Agent Bruce Campbell [the campy actor everybody loves], Barnabas and Angelique Collins [the vampire from Dark Shadows and the witch who turned him into a vampire when he broke their engagement], etc. It is all done in a witty tongue-in-cheek way that doesn’t seem cheesy. Well, too cheesy, anyway.
The only thing I truly did not like about this book is *sigh* the silly cover. Despite the just plain absurd “sci-fi fan convention fantasy dress” depiction of Eliza Braun on the cover of the book, for the most part she dresses and behaves like a Victorian woman in public. Yes, her private behavior is a bit outrageous—but this is where the book makes some of its strongest commentaries on gender and class. Although she does, on occasion, wear trousers, these few episodes are always in context: she is going into a situation that requires freedom of movement for combat or escape. This character does not flaunt social convention without specific and reasonable cause, and I appreciate the way in which these authors balance the historical period with the anachronisms.
[Warning: a rant cometh!] Did I mention the silly cover? It’s silly. As in, Agent Eliza Braun NEVER dresses like this in the book. As in, the written story is fun, engaging, and deserving of a cover that doesn’t scream to the book buyer “I’m Steampunk—buy me, buy me, buy me, meeeeee!!” I know many readers love this cover, but the fictional (and anachronistic) story is placed within real history, and the dress conventions are observed (with a few reasonable exceptions). I would have loved to see Braun depicted as she is described in the book, complete with a knife and one of her beloved pounamu pistols handy. After all, the artist did manage to accomplish this with Books who, sadly, is buried in the background and, therefore, cannot rescue the silly cover. I understand that authors don't always have much control over the cover art for their books, but I'm hoping that the next cover will more accurately reflect Agent Braun and be a little less 'Steampunk convention.' [End rant.]
Even though there are two authors, I feel the writing reflects one voice and I don’t feel like there was resistance or conflict in the way the story is assembled, though I have read other commentaries where this is cited as a specific problem. I feel inclined to reread these chapters and revisit my opinion on this point, but I find that I am otherwise pleased with this story and the way it is presented. I enjoyed reading Books and Braun’s adventures, which I found much more entertaining and less frustrating than many books I have read in this genre recently. I would put this book at the top of my recommend pile, which is why I have chosen to give it a five-star rating. I keep trying to reassess that rating and change it to a four, but I just can’t. Is the book campy, verging on cheesy? Yes. Does it have a cinematic feel similar to the 2009 Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Jr.? Yes. Was it a fun and entertaining story? YES. I can’t wait for Cogs and Corsets: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novel in May 2012!!! (less)